| Everest's unsung hero
Nima Tenzing Galang’s Filipino husband, Emmanuel (Noli) Galang, a gentle artist with a mischievous sense of humour with whom I worked for several years, died on the 50th anniversary of her father’s triumph. It was not surprising, perhaps, in this globalized world that the news reached me in Singapore in an e-mail from Calcutta, sent by another friend of Noli’s, Barun Roy, also an artist. I called Nima in Manila, and we spoke amidst her grief of her own small part in the Everest saga.
As Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa porter who made history, set out on that epochal journey, she had given him a blue ballpoint pen which he left on the peak with offerings of biscuits, chocolates and Buddhist prayers. “Nima had earnestly asked me to put the pen on the summit of Mount Everest,” he told his son, Jamling Norgay, many years later. “It was quite an ordinary pen, but one of my daughter's dearest things.” Like all mountain folk, Tenzing worshipped Everest. It is Chomolungma, Goddess Mother of the Land, abode of the gods.
Nima was a little girl then. My own schoolboy memories of this week, 50 years ago, are of elation at the achievement, and anger at the politics that diminished it. Why this week, you might ask, when Tenzing and Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand bee-keeper, climbed Everest on May 29, 1953. That was just it. The news was suppressed until June 2, Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. We knew only then that the lanky, rawboned long-faced Hillary’s first words after coming down were, “We knocked the bastard off!” Was his nonchalance consciously trying to upstage George Mallory’s “Because it was there,” I wondered. In those forgotten days of Pax Britannica, when Britain was gushingly loyal to monarchy and the House of Windsor, the British were able to reduce Everest to a royal prop.
James (now Jan) Morris of London’s Times newspaper — itself then stiff with imperial hauteur — accompanied the expedition, and had exclusive rights to the story. Peter Jackson of Reuters has recorded how Morris tried to protect the monopoly by sending a misleading cable about Tenzing and Hillary failing to reach the top. Jackson saw through the subterfuge. I greatly enjoy Morris’s nostalgic evocations of empire, but in 1953 my instinctive anglophilism was already at odds with nascent loyalty to an India that had been independent for less than six years and a republic for under three. The “conquest” of Everest seemed excessively contrived. The questions surrounding it reeked of pride and prejudice.
Who reached the summit first' Hillary said he did; then, as the subcontinent rumbled indignantly at what it saw as a white man’s arrogant presumption, conceded they had made the final ascent “almost together”. Tenzing’s dignified comment was that they “climbed as a team”. He was a natural diplomat and always generous. Lycos Asia’s managing editor, Shobha Tsering Bhalla, who also worked with Noli and me in Singapore, writes that “when a child would come to his door precociously reminding him of a vague ‘promise’ of a pup — as this writer did shamelessly as a 12-year old — he would oblige unhesitatingly”.
After Tenzing’s death in 1986, Hillary repeated his own boast. The controversy shadowed the jubilee junketings in Kathmandu which Nima could not attend because of Noli’s illness. Underlying the dispute is the Sherpa’s inferior status. He remains Everest’s “unsung hero”, as someone put it. He does the hard work while the climber, usually European, strides into the limelight. Being herself from the Himalayas, Shobha deplores the “cultural colonialism” that prevents the world from doing adequate honour to “those doughty mountain men without whom no, repeat, no, expedition to Everest would be possible”. Her Bhutiya blood boils with rage when people write of “the tribe as ‘sherpas’ (in the lower case), as though being a Sherpa was the same as being a locksmith, a baker or a banker”.
When Indians and Nepalese both claimed him as their very own, Tenzing said with tactful magnanimity that he “was born in the womb of Nepal and raised in the lap of India”. The Sherpas had originated in the eastern warrior province of Kham, and though most moved to Nepal and the border marches in the 16th century, Tibet was actually his birthplace. But the hardy Sherpas know no political borders. They straddle the Himalayas.
Had he hoisted India’s flag or Nepal’s on the summit' Both, Tenzing answered, together with Britain’s Union Jack. After all, it was a British expedition led by an impeccable British colonel to honour Britain’s new young Queen. You can just about make out Nepal’s distinctive joined triangles — the only national flag in the world that is not rectangular — in Hillary’s photograph of Tenzing holding aloft his pickaxe.
The unequal distribution of British honours compounded our chagrin. Hillary and the team leader, Colonel John Hunt, were knighted; Tenzing got a medal. Nima and her elder sister, Pem Pem, both in pigtails, attended the investiture at Buckingham Palace where, this week, Queen Elizabeth celebrated her half a century on the throne by throwing a party for disadvantaged children and welcoming her son’s mistress. British royalty has come a long way since it treated the world’s highest peak as a personal possession.
“It has been a long road,” Tenzing dictated, for he could not write, “from a mountain coolie, a bearer of loads, to a wearer of a coat with rows of medals who is carried about in planes and worries about income tax.” He might have added that when Nima married Noli, a Catholic who yet respected the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, in Hong Kong, Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, the Himalayan aficionado and anthropologist who once had hopes of the Greek crown and lived in Kalimpong (Jawaharlal Nehru’s “nest of spies”) for many years, gave her away.
Nehru and the British owners and managers of The-Statesman-that-was helped the transformation. The newspaper collected funds to buy him Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s house in Darjeeling. Nehru set up the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute with Tenzing as director. The handsome diminutive tribal who flashed a brilliant smile, physically so different from Hillary, appealed to the sophisticated romantic. Nehru saw Tenzing, blending three cultures, simple, self-made and world-renowned, as the epitome of Asian achievement.
More than 1,200 people have climbed Everest since then with so many variations on the theme that Hillary says it only remains for someone to walk up backwards. They have broadcast live television from the summit, ironed a flag at 18,000 ft, and defiled the eternal snows with abandoned rope, broken aluminium ladders, empty oxygen canisters, discarded plastic wrapping and tons of other rubbish. Everest is said to be degenerating into a cross between a safari park and Disneyland because Nepal needs the $70,000 that each team pays.
Morris thought that even the 1953 feat served little purpose. “Geography was not furthered by the achievement, scientific progress was scarcely hastened, and nothing new was discovered.” Tenzing tried to dissuade Jamling, who has also reached the top, from following in his footsteps. “Why do you want to climb'” he asked. “I already climbed it for you. You don’t have to work on the mountain.” He himself did it because it was his job. It was the only thing he knew. It enabled him to give a good education to Nima and her siblings.
No wonder he and his beloved daughter sacrificed a prized pen to Everest, abode of the gods.